They call it the Dead Valley, and the name is enough to make the old woman cry. She remembers when an emerald canopy hugged the mountains in a luscious blanket. When the dawn and dusk were greeted with the cries of birds and monkeys and insects, a fierce chorus beyond the need for harmony. When the valley was as it should be—dangerous and unstill and hot with life.
But she doesn’t waste much time reminiscing, because grief feeds on memory, and she has other things to do. Right now, for example, her attention’s on the three girls coming down the sandy path from the ruins of the temple, shadows like distorted doppelgängers at their feet. Two of them are foreign—long-haired, bronze-skinned—but the one in the middle is local. Or, at least, her family is. Her tight shorts and her sleeveless top are like nothing a local girl would wear, though, and there’s no hint of spice in her sweat. Instead, there’s the acrid smell of bad luck, like the smell of a landfill upwind, growing as she approaches.
The old woman closes her eyes and reaches through the thicket of possibilities that crowd about the girl. Eventually, she sees one black and glossy skein that runs through her lifeline like an infection. Of course it involves a man. Of course it involves a child. In the slimy foam that froths around the lines of consequence lurk an angry family and poverty and missed chances. All this and also loneliness so heavy it will crush the breath from her chest.
When she opens her eyes, the girls are nearly on her. She heaves herself to her feet. One of the foreign girls scurries giggling around to the other side of her friends, but the other two pause. The old woman quickly flicks through the great tangle of necklaces hanging from her forearm and holds one out to the local-looking girl. It’s a simple charm, aquamarine interspersed with tiny ant-bat skulls, strung on a leather tong soaked in tincture of isonflower.
‘For luck,’ she lies, and smiles.
The local-looking girl curls her lip.
They move on, but the old woman hobbles after them.
‘No, for luck,’ she says. ‘You can pay whatever you like.’
‘What’s she saying?’ says her friend.
‘She says I can pay whatever I want.’
‘Anything you want,’ says the old woman. ‘Two hundred kubli. Five midals. A smile. Anything.’
The local-looking girl takes the necklace and holds it against her arm and the blue looks vivid and fresh against her dark skin. One of her friends nods and smiles and in that instant the old woman learns two things: that the local-looking girl will keep the necklace, and that the real bond in this trio is between these two.
In the end, the girl buys it for more than it cost to make and puts it on immediately. Most likely it’ll last her seven and a half years. After that, the leather will snap and the beads and skulls will fall into a drain in a city far away. Most likely this will happen on a street after a rain shower when the rain lies glittering on the grainy asphalt. The girl will mourn its loss.
That night her ovaries will wake again after their long slumber, though she won’t have noticed that they were ever asleep.
The old woman heads up, puffing and satisfied, towards the temple. The damp wreck about her is so different from the place she grew up in. Still, she stops in the gathering shadows and remembers the last time she was here. The sound of thunder and rain. The hacking growl of guns. There was a boy with her and he was stealing glances at her whenever he had the chance. A golden weasel was standing on the altar.
‘Yes?’ He’d said.
‘Yes,’ she’d said, and looked at the boy.
‘Yes,’ the boy’d said, and smiled.
In the present, the old woman hobbles over in the gloom and mustiness to the altar. Past a soggy cigarette butt and an errant pen cap and an oily plastic wrapper flapping like a blinded moth against the wall. She finds what she’s looking for around the back of the altar—a single blue flower growing out of the stone, deep blue and glowing like the last hint of sunlight in the evening sky.
She reaches out and pauses. Then she snaps it.
A shudder percusses the temple, as low and soft as the shaking of a tuning fork. She feels it in her bones—a gorgeous trill—and sighs.
A thousand miles away, an old man wakes in the middle of the night. First he smiles. Then he cries.
The girl wakes at dawn and dew is dripping from the leaves about her. The boy’s crouching nearby, peering into the crowded undergrowth. The safety on his rifle is off. Shirtless and poised and taut, he looks as natural a part of the jungle as anything else. The girl feels a warmth in her stomach and on her face and between her thighs before she notices something is wrong and pushes it all away. The boy raises a finger to his lips without looking at her, and points. The girl slinks over and takes up position beside him and eases the safety back on her own rifle.
Somehow, a small group of Redcaps has set up camp not a hundred meters away. They’re gathered around their morning campfire, guns slung casually over their shoulders, splitting and skinning rodents and grilling them over the flames. The girl’s stomach rumbles. So does the boy’s, so loud that the girl worries the Redcaps will hear. In ordinary times, they’d have found the boy and the girl in seconds. Part of her wishes they would. That they would take her in and give her one of those bullet-belching Eikuan machine guns. Then she could swagger about with confidence, a huge sash of bullets the size of thumbs scything across her chest, just like the big woman holding two gutted monkeys by the tail who now joins the others.
‘Nothing around,’ the woman says, tossing her catch onto the flames. ‘I don’t like it. Let’s eat and get going.’
‘What about the two priestlings?’ says one of the men. The girl evaluates him—mousy, bucktoothed, oddly hairy. Sinew, but not much muscle. He’d be fast, but she’d be faster.
‘Let the traitor deal with them. Let’s just get back and get our share from the temple.’
The girl takes aim. The boy squeezes her shoulder, once, gently. She glances at him, and the moment passes.
They sneak away through the tickling damp. When they’re far enough away, they climb a tree and move along its lower branches, ten or twenty meters above the seminude forest floor, for all the world like two gibbons brachiating in search of fruit.
‘Where is the Lord?’ says the girl.
‘The Lord can find us if the Lord wants. Didn’t they teach you that at the temple?’
‘No, sir. Did you learn it at snooty posh dickhead academy?’
‘You snore like a pig.’
‘You smell like one.’
The boy doesn’t respond. Instead, he surges ahead of the girl, accelerating, and it’s a challenge she cannot ignore. She climbs higher and scampers along the great damp boughs, three-four-five feet across. Frogs squatting in the hollows of bromeliads watch her with plump disinterest. She hears the boy coming up below her but, as always, he’s clumsy and today in his irritation he’s clumsier still. She swings down along a vine and lands barefoot and silent at the edge of a pool.
Swimming a few feet away in the placid waters is the golden weasel.
‘Why are you fighting?’ He says.
The girl lowers her head until her forehead touches the soil.
‘We weren’t fighting, Lord,’ she says. ‘We must move. There are Redcaps nearby.’
The weasel looks up into the treetops, and then at the sky.
‘They won’t come this way.’
‘Still. We should move. Find shelter until dark.’
The weasel emerges and shakes itself dry. Then He climbs up the girl’s arm and curls around her neck. She feels Him warm and damp against her skin, His little heart hammering, and resists the urge to stroke Him. A few moments later, the boy crashes out of the forest and skids to a halt.
‘Lord,’ he says. ‘That’s not an appropriate—’
‘Let’s go,’ says the weasel.
The girl takes off at a jog and the boy falls in behind her. She doesn’t need to look at him to know he’s jealous. She can tell from the possibilities proliferating in the air. In some they die together and in some they die apart and in some one of them kills the other. Still, in all, their deaths are bound, like two branches from the same trunk. She’s satisfied with that.
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